I think my wife must be getting all religious. She keeps talking to me about someone called St Valentine who apparently has a big day out next Saturday. I think this St Valentine chap must be rather influential because she insists I could be going to heaven that night. What she means by that, I’m not exactly sure. It seems to involve the sacred offerings of chocolate and flowers for something she calls the “altar of love”.
Love – it’s the oldest story of all. It’s been around since Adam was a lad. Each generation thinks they invented it which, if that were true, would offer no explanation to how the species keeps reproducing itself.
Douglas Adams thought that there was an awful lot of it going about and wrote “it really is, terribly complicated.” For all that, the tradition of sending Valentine gifts or vows dates back to the days of Chaucer with printed cards first appearing in England in 1761. Improvements in printing techniques and in the postal service lead to a great expansion in Valentine-sending in the Victorian era before an Edwardian decline which was not exceeded until the later part of the 20th century. The present day probably sees another decline in the giving of traditional Valentine cards as their role is increasingly replaced by various electronic messaging devices.
The tradition of giving cards must have been active in the first half of the 20th century when my late mother attended St Michael’s Church of England Girls Grammar School in St Kilda. I remember her describing to me, like a scene in “Picnic at Hanging Rock”, the excitement among the girls when one of the mistresses received a Valentine card. It carried an inscription on the front, “Roses are red, Violets are blue” but inside the insulting conclusion “a monkey like you belongs in the zoo” with an all too artistically drawn picture of a particularly nasty looking monkey. The girls thought it very amusing of course but not so the unmarried school mistress for whom teaching was probably one of the few ways of supporting herself.
The concept of class distinction and the demarcation line of marital relations across it that existed in 19th century Australia is a foreign one to us in a world where today marriage is sometimes thought to be an antiquated institution. After all, who wants to live in an institution? If we look at a few of the 19th century romances that were around the Heidelberg district in the not so staid Victorian era, what is clear is that love really does make the world go round, even if sometimes the edges turn out to be a bit crooked.
As explained previously, the brothers John and Robert Bakewell established the first successful farm at Yallambee in 1840. John Bakewell was a wool classer by profession and left the running of Yallambee to his brother while he himself looked after their business affairs. John seems to have been pretty good at affairs for it has been rumoured that he managed to get a serving girl in the family way at Tooradin. That was on a property where he maintained additional farming interests as a partner in Mickle, Bakewell and Lyall. The class divisions between marital relations were very clear in the 19th century and could be experienced by every section of it at different times and to varying degrees. When reading the surviving accounts of their relationship, who does not believe that Queen Victoria was in love with John Brown? She no doubt fancied a man in a kilt. She stipulated that a photograph of Brown, a lock of his hair and his mother’s ring should be buried with her when she died. They say that love makes no clear distinction, however it was class and the mores of society that kept the devotion of Victoria and Brown in life almost certainly unconsummated.
While Australia has always endeavoured to produce a classless society, a product perhaps of our convict past, from the earliest days of settlement the Heidelberg district had pretensions to being something of an aristocratic locality, or the nearest thing to one the archetypal Port Phillip district could provide. “It is natural that on each of the main hills along the Yarra and its tributaries wealthy people, able to afford such select spots, should have settled and built large houses.” (Heidelberg – The Land and Its People 1838-1900, Donald S Garden, MUP)
The pre gold rush estates of the Yarra Plenty River confluence, with their exotic gardens and houses situated on high riverside ridges, were like Antipodean-Italian hill side villas, landmarks in a colonial landscape so newly settled. The mass plantings of Italian cypresses by Robert Bakewell would have done much to further this effect at Yallambee. Some of these properties were built on hill sides within sight of each other and given the class distinctions of the day it was only natural that sometimes the children of the owners of these prestigious rural seats would find romance nearby among their social peers.
Minnie (Mary) Graham, the daughter of wealthy merchant and land agent, James Graham, grew up at Heidelberg’s Banyule Homestead in the early 1860s which her father leased from Joseph Hawdon. She married Robert Martin Jr in 1874, the only son of Dr Robert Martin of the neighbouring Viewbank Homestead which was built around 1840, a few kilometers downstream from the Bakewells’ Yallambee.
In 1922, after the farm was purchased by the Bartram family, Viewbank Homestead was professionally demolished, a home now to nothing more than a warren of rabbits burrowing into its foundations. We used to fly kites nearby as children, when Banyule Rd then had much less traffic.
If you stand on the vacant location of the Homestead today, marked as an archaeological site near the southern end of the Plenty River Bicycle Trail, and pause to look across the valley, you will see Banyule Homestead poking out from the suburban landscape. That impressive pre gold rush building still stands on the opposite ridge above former farmland, redeveloped in the 1970s as the “Banyule Flats” park. Squinting to look west, past the old Bunya pine and into the setting sun, you can maybe imagine for a moment how the relationship between Minnie and Robert, the proverbial older boy next door, might have developed. How often did Minnie Graham gaze out from Banyule across this valley and with rose coloured glasses imagine what the future might have in store?
The marriage pleased Robert Jr’s father, Dr Martin, who saw in it a merger of colonial gentry. Dr Martin’s wedding gift to the couple was Banyule Homestead itself, which Graham had been attempting to sell on Hawdon’s behalf for some years. Sadly Robert Martin, a diabetic, left Minnie widowed after only four years of marriage which just goes to show that in real life there is always the possibility of an unwanted postscript to the Jane Austen ending.
When it came to son in law material, Dr Martin set the bar high and was keen that each of his five daughters should marry into the Melbourne elite. Three of them, Emma, Charlotte and Annie chose or had chosen for them, well credentialed gentlemen who were all members of the doctor’s own Melbourne club. In the case of the last named, Annie, Dr Martin insisted that she marry the city coroner, the middle aged Dr Richard Youl, taking no notice of his daughter’s feelings nor taking to heart the broad disapproval: “everyone from Lady Hotham downwards all pitying poor Annie”.
Dr Martin’s other two daughters followed their hearts and in so doing defied their father. Edith Martin married Captain Bradley, the commander of HMS Galatea, the ship that brought Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh to Australia on the first Royal tour. Dr Martin disapproved of naval officers and Edith corresponded in secret with Captain Bradley for a year before a marriage was agreed upon. Even then her father insisted on a long engagement of 2 ½ years before wedding nuptials were possible.
The black sheep of the family was surely Dr Martin’s eldest child, Lucy Martin who followed her heart’s desire and eloped in 1857 with Lieutenant John Theodore Thomas Boyd of the vice regal staff. Dr Martin had even less respect for junior army officers than he did for naval men and had earlier refused his permission for the match. Aged 23 Lucy was free to marry anyway which is just what she did, leaving Viewbank on a pretext and meeting Boyd at a pre-arranged rendezvous from where they travelled to Richmond to be married. They later returned to Viewbank to confess and although we can imagine the scene that ensued, the story appears to have ended in forgiveness. The happy couple seems to have quickly got the hang of it and produced a dozen children, including Arthur Merric Boyd, the founding father of the Boyd dynasty of Australian artists. Today it is the progeny of Dr Martin’s wayward child Lucy who are remembered by history.
A generation later, the children of Yallambie’s Thomas and Sarah Wragge perhaps encountered their own difficulties when it came to choosing appropriate life partners. The eldest Wragge son married a woman who had been governess to some of the Wragge children, a marriage that “was not wholeheartedly accepted by some members of the Wragge family”. The Wragge’s very own “Jane Eyre”.
Winty Calder thought that the Wragges probably kept fairly much to themselves, with few intimate circles on the broader scale. One social outlet it seems included drawing and painting lessons from the Heidelberg School artist Walter Withers at his studio in Cape Street, Heidelberg which Jessie and perhaps also Annie Wragge enjoyed.
The conduct of these lessons drew this comment from their mother in an 1898 letter: “So Jessie has finished her paintings at last, and I quite think with you that there must be more talk than work at that studio.” Jessie was 30 when her mother wrote that but in the late 19th century, before the advent of “eHarmony”, country girls like Jessie from good upstanding, Anglican families probably had few real opportunities to mix with their social peers of the opposite sex. All the same, Jessie seems to have maintained a keen interest in her appearance and the social graces, evidenced by an “intense interest in current dress fashions”.
This story from Jessie’s nephew Frank Wright, and reported in Calder’s “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales”, records something about the opposition to her dress style that she encountered within the Wragge family home:
“One story of these times, and which I heard later, is rather a staggerer to us of later times. Women’s fashion then included the tight, hour-glass waist, but Thomas Wragge had forbidden it. However, secretly Jessie had bought one of these costumes and thought much of it. One evening a large party was at Yallambie and everyone but Jessie took their seats at the dining table, with grandfather at the head. He had a great joint in front of him and the carving knife and fork in his hands, when Jessie, in her beloved dress, scuttled into the room and to her seat. She had planned that by so doing, she would escape observation. She had no luck.
There was a roar from the old man – ‘Jessie, stand up’ was the command. Then – ‘Jessie, come here’ he ordered, pointing to the floor beside him. In the paralysing silence which followed, Jessie did as ordered. Then ‘Turn around’ was the order. Whereupon the old man slid the carving knife down her back inside the offending dress, and he ripped it open to the waist. Jessie was thereupon ordered to ‘Go upstairs and get decently dressed.’”
Jessie died from tuberculosis in October, 1910, five months after the death of her father Thomas, he of the carving knife, and predeceasing her mother. She died unmarried and aged only 42. The local newspaper wrote of her: “The late Miss Wragge was of a retiring disposition, but was a general favourite among her intimate friends.”
Another Wragge daughter, Jessie’s younger sister Alice, did marry but her choice of a younger and socially inferior partner incensed her father into a dramatic action. Calder described the union in “Classing the Wool and counting the Bales thus:
“On 24 August 1908, Alice Wragge married Albert Edward Friar of Carlton, a son of Henry and Mary Ann (nee Tyler) Friar, who lived in Heidelberg. Henry was a bricklayer. The prelude to that marriage has long been shrouded in secrecy as far as the Wragge family has been concerned. Alice was thirty-six and Albert was twenty-three. They were married by a Congregational minister at 448 Queen Street, Melbourne, and the witnesses probably knew little about the couple. Albert had been employed as a groom at “Yallambie”, and Thomas did not approve of the liaison. His disapproval was so intense that he signed a codicil to his will on 19 December 1908, ensuring that Albert would never profit directly from the Wragge fortune. But that codicil also disinherited Alice’s descendants.”
From the small amount of surviving documentary evidence concerning the life of Alice Wragge, Calder thought that “she was a light-hearted young woman, who regarded life with a considerable amount of humour- which is absent from letters written by other members of the family.” I think we would have liked Alice.
It seems to me that eloping Alices must have been all the fashion at one time. My wife’s family had one all their own, complete with a Viewbank/Plenty River connection which is worth a mention here. Ada Alice Smith was a member of the extensive W. H. Smith family, well known stationers in the UK. Early in the 20th century she ran off with my wife’s great grandfather, a painter and decorator by trade, who brought Ada Alice to Australia. I suppose she must have liked his wall paperings. The net result was that Ada Alice was cut off by her family without the “proverbial shilling”. She ended up on a chicken farm on the very next bend of the Plenty river, downstream from Yallambie and which Great grandfather purchased from the Bartrams at Viewbank around the time that Viewbank Homestead met its wrecking ball end. The house that Great grandfather built is itself now long gone but the foundations are still there in parkland at the end of the extension of Martins Lane, Viewbank, if you know where to look.
It would seem that Great grandfather was better at charming than farming. In the 1920s he managed to kill all of his chickens with an accident involving an incubator. Family legend has it that only one chicken survived which Great grandfather managed to also consign to oblivion by tripping over the unfortunate feathered fellow with his size number 11 boots. Probably a partly apocryphal story but Ada Alice died all too young on the Lower Plenty River, forgotten by her paterfamilias and far from the land of her birth.
Of the family of that other Alice, in 1997 to launch “Classing the Wool and Counting the Bales” a Wragge family reunion was held at Yallambie Homestead with over a hundred descendants of Thomas and Sarah Wragge present. One of the more touching aspects of that day was the involvement of the descendants of Alice Wragge from her union with Albert Friar. That branch of the family had been estranged in an earlier generation in a way that, by the end of the 20th century, seemed incomprehensible. On that day for the opening of the publication of Calder’s book, for the first time in ninety years the descendants of Thomas and Sarah Wragge were remarkably united.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”